Saturday, May 16, 2015

"All Great Music Is Melancholy"

Says music critic, Shaji Chennai, who has just published his first book in Malayalam called 'Paattalla Sangeetham' (Music is not a song)

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Shaji Chennai by K. Rajesh Kumar; Salil Chowdhury 

The late Mollywood film director Ramu Kariat was much taken up by the music in the classic Hindi film, 'Madhumati'. When he enquired about the music director he was told that it was a Bengali called Salil Chowdhury.

When Ramu heard that Salil was in Chennai doing re-recording work for a Hindi film, he went there and met Salil. He requested Salil to compose the music for his film, 'Chemmeen' (1965). Salil had no idea about Malayalam films, but agreed to work for Ramu.

And today, the songs that Salil did for 'Chemmeen' have become immortal. They include 'Maanasa Maine Varu' and 'Kadalinakkare'. “But the music is based on the folk music traditions of Bengal, Assam and Nepal,” says music critic Shaji Chennai. “Very few people know that. In fact, people outside Kerala say that 'Kadalinakkara' is a fisherman's folk song of Kerala.”

And it is hugely popular. “If you ask any Tamilian which is the one Malayali song they like the most, they will mention this song,” says Shaji. “They may not have seen the film, but they love the song. That is the genius of Salil Chowdhury.”

Like Salil, Shaji is also immersed in the world of popular music. He is a trilingual writer (English, Tamil and Malayalam) of popular music in newspapers and magazines in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. So far, he has published five books on music in Tamil. And recently, the Chennai-based writer had come to Kochi for the release, by eminent director KG George, of his first book in Malayalam, called 'Paattalla Sangeetham' (Music is Not a Song) (Green Books).

Most of us believe that music means songs,” says Shaji. “But a song, especially the vocals, is a tiny part. Music is a language by itself. That is why we still enjoy the works of Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart which were composed centuries ago.”

Music, worldwide, is more about instrumentals than vocals. “All the Western classical compositions are instrumentals,” says Shaji. “In Hindustani and Carnatic music, also, the lyrics consists of a few lines. These are repeated again and again.”

Even in a film song, there are so many instrumental portions: the percussion, chords, backing arrangements and lead instrumentals. “But most people don't pay attention to this,” says Shaji. “Instead, they only listen to the lyrics. In a way, many are uninformed when it comes to music.”

Incidentally, Shaji's book is divided into two sections. In the first one, on Indian musicians, he has written about PB Srinivas, Madan Mohan, T M Sounderarajan, Manna Dey, MS Viswanathan, Dakshinamoorthi, Hariharan, Johnson, Mehdi Hasan, Kannur Rajan, and the unsung Philip Francis. “Philip was a ghazal singer and an accomplished tabla ustad of Kerala,” he says. “Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 43, in 2008, in a bike accident.”

According to Shaji, the late Kannur Rajan is one of the greatest Malayalam composers he has come across. “Unfortunately, he is not even regarded in the top five,” says Shaji. “But Rajan had the ability to explore the intricacies of Hindustani music. Since most of his songs were featured in films which had a brief run in the theatres, very few people have heard the songs. 
There are so many factors which have to come into play for a song to become popular.”

Asked to identify a common character trait among all composers, Shaji says, “Most of them are sad. There is a Persian saying that says that all great music is melancholy. The fastest dance song that you hear, from a good composer, at the core, there will be a feeling of melancholia. That's because all musicians are on an unknown quest to know the meaning of art and life.”

In the second section of the book, Shaji has concentrated on English music stars like Michael Jackson, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Hungarian pianist and composer Rezs┼Ĺ Seress, and Boney M. “I wrote about the impact of Boney M's music on Malayalis as well as Indians,” says Shaji. “I also pointed out that the group which came to India were not the ones who sang the original songs.”

Asked about the current trends in music, Shaji says, “Because of the invasion of computer music, it has become kid's play. Anybody can make a song. Owing to the ease of composition, there is not much of creativity. That is why there are no legendary composers these days.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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